The Mother of Indian Culture (V)


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Modern Theories

When the modern western mind, lacking in spiritual insight, but acute, critical and rational with a superficial brilliance, tried to study and understand an ancient religious text like the Vedas, it relied on two sources. First was Sayana’s commentary on the Vedas and second, the newly emerging speculative “sciences” like comparative religion and comparative philology. This first generation of modern Vedic scholarship looking at the Vedic hymns with a superficial critical rationality came to the conclusion that it was the outpouring of primitive barbarian hordes with a crude religion, worshipping nature-powers with sacrificial rites and asking for mundane gifts like cows and horses. Thus according to this early western scholarship, Vedic religion was a primitive ritualistic worship of nature powers with nothing deep or spiritual in it. This conception of Vedic religion is based on the ritualistic interpretation of Sayana and some of the western theories of linear progression from barbarism to civilization. We will not at present enter into any discussion on the theoretical foundation of this conception. However, in the Indian context, there are three factors which go against this western conception of the Vedas which gained wide acceptance among the scholarly world.

The first factor is the reverence shown to the Vedas by most of the great spiritual personalities and yogis of India from the Upanishadic sages to modern Yogis like Sri Aurobindo. After the earlier Vedic period, India has given birth to many great spiritual traditions and synthesis. First is the Upanishadic synthesis which gave birth to the Vedanthic tradition. Then came the synthesis of the Gita, which was the foundation of the Vaishnava tradition. There was also the Shiva and Saktha tradition which gave birth to the other great synthesis of the Tantra. All these great religious and spiritual traditions of India and their founders and the vast galaxy of illumined yogis, seers, sages and mystics who followed, lived and realized the spiritual aims of these traditions, and held the Vedas as a spiritual revelation of highest wisdom. For example, Upanishadic sages quoted seers and verses of the Vedas as the highest authority. Svetasvatava Upanishad says categorically “Upanishads are the secret of the Vedas”. If the Vedas are the outpourings of a primitive tribe, then such a reverence shown to it by a large number of seers and yogis with the highest spiritual experience becomes inexplicable.

The second factor is that as we have already mentioned, one of the constantly recurring themes in ancient Vedic learning is that the Vedas have a triple layer of meaning — ritualistic, godly and spiritual — and the deeper spiritual meaning can be known only by Yoga. Sayana mentions some of the earlier spiritual interpretations of the Veda, which he did not accept. And the ancient Vedic etymologist Yaska, who was perhaps closer in time as well as spirit to the Vedic seers than Sayana, repeatedly alludes to the spiritual meaning of the Vedas.

“Mantras (of the Vedas) are the product of spiritual contemplation”,

says Yaska, and remarks further

“Concerning the Mantras none can claim to have perceived their truths if he is not a rishi or a tapasvi.”

This brings us to the third factor: within the Vedas itself, some statements made by Vedic rishis indicate clearly that there is a deeper meaning behind the Vedic riks. In one of the verses the Vedic Rishi describes his words as

“All these are secret words….. words of seer-knowledge that expresses their meaning only to the seer.”

But western scholarship led by Max Muller, ignoring all these deeper suggestions inherent in the Vedic tradition, succeeded in foisting on the academic community, a naturalistic interpretation based on a mass of acute but superficial learning. And the result was that a whole generation of Vedic scholars were misled into the bypaths of Vedic enquiry rather than entering straight onto the true path to the Vedic truth. But we cannot blame entirely the western scholars for misinterpreting the Veda. If someone like Sayana steeped in the Indian tradition can ignore the deeper meaning of the Veda, how can we expect the western scholar coming from an alien culture to show better understanding of the Vedas? As Sri Aurobindo, commenting on the verse of the Vedic seer on the secret words of the Veda, says:

“Secret words that have kept indeed their secret, ignored by the priest, the ritualist, the grammarian, the pundit, historian, the mythologist for whom they have been words of darkness or seals of confusion and not what they were to the supreme ancient forefathers and their illumined posterity.” 1

However, the naturalistic interpretation of the early European scholars is not the only modern view on the Vedas. There are also other theories and viewpoints. The most important among them for a better understanding of the Veda is the monotheistic interpretation of the Vedas by Dayananda Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj. Dayananda, steadfastly held on to the traditional belief of the Veda as the inspired scripture of the illumined Vedic Rishis. According to Dayananda, the central message of the Veda is the monotheistic unity of the one Divine Being expressing Himself or His Glory in many names and forms of the Gods and also in the various forces of Nature. Dayananda also believed that the Vedas reveal the one divine law and the Law of Nature, which governs the Universe and our relations with God and Nature and fellow human beings. So Vedas contain not only the highest religious and spiritual truths but also the highest ethical truth on human conduct and the scientific truth of the Law of Nature. The importance of Dayananda’s interpretation on the Vedas lies in the fact that he is perhaps the first among the modern minds to grasp the essence of the Vedic message and provide the right clues for a better understanding of the Vedas. As Sri Aurobindo describes the contributions of Dayananda to the Vedic studies:

“In the matter of Vedic interpretations …… Dayananda will be honoured as the first discoverer of the right clues. He has found the keys of the doors that time had closed and rent asunder the seals of the imprisoned foundations.” 2

However, the main defect of Dayananda’s interpretation of the Vedas is that it tends to be emotional and polemical and lacks the calm, impartial and disinterested approach to truth demanded by the modern culture of scientific scholarship. Here again Sri Aurobindo brings out the inadequacies of Dayananda’s exposition of the Vedas with as much impartial clarity as he did while complimenting Dayananda for his contribution to his Vedic studies:

“…… the attempt of Swami Dayananda has not been of a kind to generate confidence in the dispassionate judgement of posterity which must be the final arbiter of these disputes; for not only was the great Pandit and vigorous disputant unequipped with the wide linguistic and philological scholarship necessary for its work but his method was rapid, impatient, polemical, subservient to certain fixed ideas rather than executed in the calm, disinterested freedom of the careful and impartial thinker and scholar.” 3

There are also other modern theories pertaining to the more external aspect of the Vedas. There is the Arctic theory of the Veda by Lokamanya Tilak. Tilak traced the original home of the Vedic Aryans to the Northern polar region. He has also calculated based on astronomical clues, the date of the hymns to be six thousand years before the Christian era. Mr. Paramashiva Iyer propounded in the early years of the century his geological theory of the Vedas. Rig Veda, according to Paramahiva Iyer is a symbolic description of the new birth of our planet from its long glacial submergence in the ice age. For example, the battle between the Uritra-abi and Indra is interpreted as the melting of the Glacier (Uritra) by the fire and lava of the Volcano (Indra)! There is also another interesting biological interpretation of the Veda by Rele. Rele conceives the Rig Veda as a symbolic description of the physiology of the human nervous system. The Vedic deities represent different centres of activity in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the nerves. Rele asserts that the Riks exhibit an extraordinary knowledge of the inner organism of the human body.4  If Rele’s theory can be proved with sufficient scientific evidence, it supports Dayananda’s contention that the Vedas contain not only spiritual knowledge but also scientific knowledge.

However, none of these physical, geological or biological theories touch the essence of the problem—the spiritual significance of the Vedas. Even Dayananda’s interpretation which was able to grasp the central intuition of the Vedas, does not give a coherent and comprehensive understanding of the inner and outer sense of the Vedic truth. Herein lies the importance of Sri Aurobindo’s interpretation of the Vedas.


Other articles in this series

 Part I  |  Part II  |  Part III  |  Part IV


1. Sri Aurobindo, Secret of the Veda, SABCL, Vol. 14, P. 202
2. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol. 17, 343
3. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol. 27m p. 182-83
4. M.P. Pandit, the Mystic Approach to Veda and the Upanishad, p. 17